Showing posts with label The Bahamas. Show all posts
Showing posts with label The Bahamas. Show all posts

24 April 2012

The edge of the world: a Blog Off post

Every two weeks, bloggers of every stripe weigh in on the same topic in an event called a Blog Off. This week's topic is "The Edge of the World" and we're being encouraged to write about an event where we pushed past the boundaries of what we knew to be true at the time. Here's my take:


The Bahamas is known the world over for a geographical feature it shares with just a handful of places around the globe, blue holes. The Bahamas' blue holes are essentially sink holes that lie submerged in salt water. In most of them, fresh water and salt water coexist in an uneasy truce. The salt water sits in a clearly defined and visible layer on top of the fresh water and diving into a blue hole is a really wild experience because you float between the two extremes.


The photo above shows Dean's Hole near Clarence Town on Long Island, The Bahamas. Dean's Hole is the world's largest submerged blue hole. This aerial shot explains pretty clearly why they're called blue holes. Dean's Hole is 202 meters deep, that's 663 feet. The water surrounding it is at most a meter deep, so that's a pretty profound drop off.

Not too far from Long Island is Cat Island, a nearly deserted paradise I've been running away to for the last five or so years. I've written about it extensively in the past and I have a story to tell that dovetails into this Blog Off Topic perfectly.

This photo shows Fernandez Bay, the beach where I stay when I'm on Cat. The first arrow shows the location of the cottage that welcomes me back every time.

The second arrow points to a salt marsh and the location of an unmarked blue hole referred to as "Boiling Hole" by the locals because when the tide goes out it bubbles and gurgles and when the tide comes back in it forms a whirlpool over its entrance.

Kayaking in a salt marsh can be tricky.

In a kayak, you're sitting right on the water and it's difficult to get any kind of perspective on where you are.

This means that it's difficult to judge distances and it's hard to see underwater features until you're directly over them. Add to that skewed perspective that you're in one of the most hostile environments you can find and not getting lost becomes a huge priority.

Salt marshes are full of dead ends and the advice my friends and I had to work from consisted of "Stick to the deeper channels, watch the tides and look for a wide spot of shallow water." Deeper is a relative term because the water's incredibly shallow everywhere. Keeping an eye on the tides is vital because getting stranded in a receding tide is a recipe for disaster when outside help is non-existent. Monitoring the tides was important too because the only way to spot the blue hole was to watch for bubbling or a whirlpool.

After a few hours of looking for our blue hole, we realized that there were all kinds of wide spots of shallow water.

Here are a couple of shots of my friends and I taking advantage of being lost and putting ashore during that first trip back into the marsh.

Would that Boiling Hole were as readily identifiable as Dean's Hole on Long Island or any of the other blue holes on Cat. But alas, we were looking for the hardest one to find and I always like a good challenge.

After around three hours of paddling and exploring, we were about to call it a day and admit defeat. We couldn't find Boiling Hole and that was that. Everybody was exhausted, hungry and more than anything, thirsty.

I am more persistent than my friends I guess' because I insisted that we explore one more stretch of marsh before we called a day. By this time, there was a slack tide and I knew that if we were going to find that blue hole we were going to have to paddle over it directly. The slack tide too told me that we had to get out of there within an hour or we risked being stranded when the tide finally started to go out.

We were at the edge of the world and I wanted to reach just a bit past it to see what was there.

Within about five minutes we paddled over this:

We'd stumbled over the mouth of Boiling Hole.

Boiling hole drops around 100 meters straight down and the water surrounding it is at most 40 centimeters deep. It was the wildest thing to suddenly not see the bottom of the water after having scraped against it for the previous three hours.

Boiling Hole is connected to a spring and about five feet under the surface, the water turns into the best-tasting spring water you can imagine. Within seconds of our discovery, my party donned masks, snorkels and fins and our trek turned into one of the coolest things I've ever seen underwater.

The blue hole was some kind of an interzone and the salty parts of it were full of reef fish. The freshwater parts were filled with water plants that could never survive in the sea. There were crabs and other invertebrates that had evolved the ability to move between the two zones. I'd never seen an environment like it. That we couldn't see the bottom of it was a bit unnerving and knowing that if we stayed there for much longer we'd be sucked down into it when the tide turned made us hurry our exploration. Slaking my thirst while still underwater was a pretty wild experience too.

My friends and I were miles from other people and hundreds of miles away from modernity. Being back in that salt marsh provided a blissful isolation I've found in few other places. But at the same time, that isolation came at a cost. As fascinating as it was to explore that environment for the first time, it was uncomfortable and exhausting.

However, in the intervening years I've explored that salt marsh countless times and have been back to that blue hole frequently. I don't get lost back there anymore and it's a real thrill to guide people back to a blue hole that feels like it's mine somehow.

And now that I feel comfortable back there I can concentrate of paying attention to the lemon sharks, the green sea turtles and the mangrove jellies that call that marsh home. What's hostile to me as a Homo sapiens is welcoming to may other forms of life and it's a real treat to see the world from their perspective from time to time.

I pushed past the edge of the world that day and I'm a better man for it. Because of that experience, I can relate to other people's frustrations and fears better, I can understand my need to know everything better, and I can see how different organisms co-exist in an environment that completely foreign to my own species. Frankly, that's why I explore.


As the day goes on, a table will appear here like magic. It will list all of the participating bloggers in today's event. Click on the links to see how other people approached this topic.

05 April 2012

Easter in the Bahamas

As many of you know I am presently in Eleuthera, Bahamas and this weekend is Easter and its a bit different than in the US. In the Bahamas, Easter is a big religious holiday and more the way that I remember it as a kid. For instance, this Friday is Good Friday and you will find very few stores or businesses open. Some may be open for a few hours but not many will be open at all. That's a memory that I have from childhood and I can't even remember why. Saturday is a normal day and everything is open and if you have forgotten anything this is the day to do so because you won't be able to until the following Tuesday.

Easter Sunday has many ceremonies and church services but you won't even be able to get gas.

The Bahama's as a region is a very Christian country with churches of every denomination.
Monday is Easter Monday and again everything is closed and is generally a day of celebrations. All the various congregations on the island set up great feasts at one of the local beaches and everyone goes, eats, enjoys themselves and as a general rule it is the first time Bahamians will go into the water for the year. That part is funny because the water here, even in winter will be 75-80 degrees and it can be 90 degrees in the shade but they won't go into the ocean. I have to admit I now have a bit of this too. Water that is 80 is what I now consider "refreshing" and below that well--- I just wait.

Ten Bay Beach

Easter Monday is celebrated on the calmer Caribbean side such as this and every settlement has its own beach. Here in Governor's Harbour everyone goes to Receiver's Beach which is about 6 miles away. Every congregation provides food and drinks and families from all over the community join in. Strangely it seems that almost every Easter Monday that we have been here it rains and I mean--- It Rains. Most of the time it seems to be at the end of the festivities so it isn't really a problem.

Life here and not just at Easter is much like it used to be as I remember from my youth. Things are slower and holidays are holidays- everything is closed. Yet in the last few years, I've begun to see changes happening and stores and some businesses are staying open longer. They have started on the trends of the US and I have mixed feeling about that. When I need to get something, I'm grateful they are open but at the same time it signals a change in the times. Even here.

For further reading please stop by:

27 August 2011

Help me help some people who need it

Photo: Edward Russell III
Finally, I got some news from Cat Island yesterday. The good news is that Hurricane Irene passed and no one died on the island. The bad news is that a place and a people who already had very little lost even that. Here's the front page of today's Nassau Guardian.

That's a large photo, click on it to see the whole thing. From the reports I'm getting, the headline in that newspaper couldn't be more true. Also from today's Guardian is an article reporting from the island itself. It doesn't sound very good, but Cat Islanders are a hardy lot and I don't doubt they will recover in time. In the short term however, the electricity and phone systems (which were always rudimentary) will be down for months. The massive flooding from the storm surge has fouled wells and ruined crops. The next six months will be difficult to say the least. I'd been planning to head to Cat Island for a vacation next month and in discussing it with my traveling companions, we're still going. Our vacation's been turned into a mission to help dig out and alleviate some misery but the prospect of being able to be of service for a week holds more appeal to me than lounging on a beach ever did. If you've ever been on a cruise through The Bahamas or been to an all-inclusive resort there you'd be surprised to learn that The Bahamas is very much a part of the developing world. Their national economy is completely dependent on tourism and maintaining that cash flow is priority one for the Bahamian government. As international aid starts to arrive in that country, it will be channeled into repairing the landscaping around Sandals in Exuma and the Atlantis on Paradise Island. What doesn't end up in the hands of the big resorts will be fixing the swimming pools of a variety of ministers in Nassau. Places like Cat Island, where there's no real tourism, will be the last in line for help after the first shipments of food and water stop. The only way around that is to give money, supplies and help to people there directly. One of the things I hope to accomplish there in a week and a half is to alleviate some of the hardship of the people of Cat Island. There's an orphanage on Cat, the Old Bight Mission Home. It's just down the road from the house where I stay and it provides a place to live and an education to ten orphaned kids. The husband and wife who run it are living saints. They'll need all sorts of things and I want to be able to lend a hand. The cultural life of Cat Islanders revolves around a handful of churches. It's those churches who will end up feeding everybody until things start to turn around. I want to be able to give them some money to help to do that. So, I am throwing $500 of my own money toward this effort. I'm turning to you guys to help me double that, at least, between now and when I leave on September 6th. I'm not at all used to asking for you to do more than click on the occasional link, but this is pretty important. So if you can help at all I know a whole bunch of people who'll be tremendously grateful. Give it some thought and thanks.

If that button doesn't work, click this link instead.

8/28 edited to add:

The Palm Beach Post just added this video to their website. It's an interview with two women who describe what it was like to live through the storm surge on Cat Island last week:

29 July 2011

Something to look forward to

In a bit more than six weeks, I'm going to board this airplane.

Two-and-a-half hours later, I'll be walking here; in my blue heaven.

This guy and I (and a couple of other friends) are going to turn it all off and tune it all in. Quiet! Isolation! Primitive conditions! Hammocks strapped to coconut palms!

I haven't set foot on my beloved Cat Island in nearly two years and I am positively aching for the place. The Out Islands of the Bahamas are a magical place and I've written reams about them. So much so that The Bahamas has its own tag on my blog.

If you've been to Nassau or taken a cruise, I'm sorry to inform you that you really haven't been to The Bahamas. The Bahamas is its Out Islands, the places off the beaten path. Islands where the Obeah Man still lives and where mer-men and mermaids still swim in blue holes.

So for a week in early September, some great friends and I are going to forgo internet access, telephones, TVs and many of the modern trappings it's easy to think make life possible. Man I can't wait to turn off my phone and just sink my toes in the sand for a week.

Late addition: I just found this video on YouTube from the Bahamian recording artist Stileet. The music of the Out Islands is something called Rake and Scrape. Steel drums are for tourists in all-inclusive resorts elsewhere. Rake and Scrape is infectious to say the least. I'll be watching this video on a non-stop loop for the next six weeks!

21 December 2010

If money were no object: a Blog Off Post

The following is a Blog Off post. A Blog off is a biweekly event that's sweeping the internet. It's an event where bloggers of all stripes write about the same topic. You can learn more on the Let's Blog Off site. As the day progresses, a table will appear at the end of this post and it will list all of the participants as well as link to their posts.

The gist of the Blog Off this week is a suggestion to muse and meander about what I'd buy my loved ones if money were no object. Well, my loved ones don't really need anything that can be bought with money so I'm abandoning them for this exercise. Well, they'd be welcome to join me in the thing I'm about to muse and meander about but it doesn't involve the exchange of goods between us.

I've written quite a bit about an island in The Bahamas that's very near and dear to me, Cat Island. It has it has own keyword in my glossary it's so near and dear to me.

I never made it over to my Cat Island in 2010 but I will change that in 2011. I will.

I go to Cat Island for its isolation. I can relax there in its primitive loveliness like I can no where else. The combination of being cut off from the rest of the world and the hospitality of the Bahamian people touch me in a really profound way. The accommodations where I stay are pretty primitive but that just adds to the allure.

They're alluring because I'm a white American on vacation. The living conditions for the Bahamians who live on Cat probably don't hold the same romantic allure they do for me. The Bahamians I've come to know are a cheerful, generous lot. I doubt they realize it, but I've learned more from them than I have words to elaborate. Most of those lessons have to do with forcing me to see that most of what I tell myself is a need is an illusion.

The poverty on Cat Island may not feel like poverty to Cat Islanders but it looks like poverty to me. No one goes hungry, but life on the Out Islands of The Bahamas is hard.

I read an article in the Cape Coral, FL Daily Breeze last year that talked about the conditions at the Old Bight High School on Cat Island. I've driven past that high school more times than I can count but the article talked about how the Cape Coral Charter School System donated 2,000 text books to the high school in Old Bight. Prior to their donation, the kids at Old Bight High had one text book for every five to 15 students, depending on the subject. I read another article last October in The Bahamas Weekly that was written by the Honourable Philip "Brave" Davis, the Member of Parliament for Cat and its neighboring islands. Old Bight High School had to close in the fall of 2010 due to a lack of teachers and the unsafe conditions at the school. As of last year, Old Bight High School had 13 teachers to its 134 students. Those 134 students had to be absorbed by the already over extended Arthur's Town High School, 25 miles to the north.

25 miles is an insurmountable distance when your primary mode of transportation is your feet. I can't help but think that due to a lack of resources, any chance of a better life got snubbed out for those 134 kids with that school closure.

My proudest possession is my intellect and it hurts me deeply to hear about the educational conditions on Cat Island. That a generation of kids just had their intellectual opportunities pulled out from underneath them rubs me raw.

photo from The Bahamas Weekly

These kids deserve to be able to do anything they want with their lives and they can't do that without books and schools.

So if money were no object I would start a foundation, an educational foundation. A mistake a lot of western aid organizations make is that they're western aid organizations. Mine wouldn't be in the business of making sovereign people jump through hoops to get money. Instead, my foundation would be staffed and run by Bahamians, Cat Islanders wherever possible. My foundation would staff schools with Bahamian teachers and provide Bahamas-appropriate text books. My fantasy foundation would help to raise a generation of smart and proud Bahamians. They'd be a group of people who knew who they were and where they stood as integral parts of the sweeping history of the islands they call home.

But alas, my foundation is all in my head and likely to stay there. Unfortunately, money is an object all too real and the kids at New Bight High School got that for their big lesson this year.

It's unfathomable to me that schools close due to a lack of teachers and resources in a country just offshore from the US. A country where millions of North Americans and Europeans go every year to unwind.

So maybe what there is to do here is stop dreaming about money not being an obstacle to having basic needs met. Maybe what there is to do is find a way to actually lend a hand. Schools across the developed world throw away books by the truck load every year. It's true that Cat Island's schools represent a small, small portion of the total need, but they're the portion I know.

What would it take to partner up with a couple of school districts in Florida or elsewhere in the US? Anybody know somebody who can make a connection like that happen? Anybody out there want to lend a hand?

21 July 2010

Summer rerun: A Bahamian Breakfast and a story

This post ran originally on 1 September 2008

Here's what I had for breakfast on Sunday morning with my new pal Kermit Rolle.

Kermit is the 74-year-old proprietor of Kermit's Airport Lounge in Exuma. I told Kermit that I wanted to eat like a Bahamian and that I had a some time to kill. So he pulled up a chair, got me some sheep's tongue souse and johnny cake and proceeded to tell me his life story. Sheep's tongue souse is incredible by the way and I'm looking everywhere for a recipe but alas I am striking out. Anyone? Anyone? I know it was made with the boiled entrails of either a sheep or a goat, lime juice, potatoes, onions, allspice and Bahamian Bird Peppers. Man, who knew boiled organ meats could taste so good?

But more than the food, Kermit Rolle is the best story-teller I've ever come across. He told stories of a life so distant from mine it was hard to believe. Experiences like Sunday morning's at Kermit's Airport Lounge are why I travel. An hour spent with that man had me bowled over with gratitude for how easy I've had it when I compare my life with someone in the developing world. And at the same time I was struck with a deep admiration that someone could have the life he's had and be so happy and grateful as he looks back on it and talks to strangers like me. His joy ought to be counted as an ingredient in the incredible sheep's tongue souse.

Now here's the story part:

On Monday, I wrote about a great Bahamian breakfast I had at Kermit's Airport Lounge in Exuma and the great conversation I had with the Lounge's proprietor, Kermit Rolle.

Kermit is a walking encyclopedia when it comes to the history of The Bahamas and he's a man who's very proud of his heritage. He has ample reason to be so, and a cursory Google search of his name shows that the Rolle clan is a pretty influential bunch in both The Bahamas and in the U.S. In addition to bringing us the likes of Esther Rolle and Estelle Evans, a number of Rolle descendants have risen to great heights in the world of professional sports. So much so that two years ago, Sports Illustrated ran a great feature on the Rolle family in the Bahamas and in the world of U.S. professional sports. SI sent a reporter to spend a day with my new pal Kermit and here's what he had to say:
WE ARE coming to the point where my father took me as a little boy," says Kermit Rolle, after the car, rolling along Queen's Highway on Exuma, has passed Jacob Rolle's Christian Academy, Rolle's Chat and Chew restaurant and nurse Lydia King Rolle's clinic and jounced through two bumpy detours around floods caused by Tropical Storm Noel. Sunlight blasts through the windshield. He motions the driver to slow. Kermit is 72 years old, but for a moment he is young again. The turquoise sea flashes through the trees. To understand anything about the Rolles, you must begin right here.

Kermit was nine or 10 that day. His father took him to this spot in Steventon to retrace the route of a slave named Pompey, one of hundreds working five settlements owned by an Englishman, Lord John Rolle. In 1829 the physically imposing Pompey led a protest against a plan to move a group of Rolle's slaves from Exuma to another island in the Bahamas . Pompey and others seized a boat and took it to Nassau to plead their case with the colonial governor. They were caught and whipped, after which Pompey escaped and famously ran five miles to Rolleville to warn other slaves that British soldiers were coming to seize them. The slaves "put hell" on the soldiers, Kermit says, laughing. "Pompey knocked them down left, right and center."

Pompey's rebellion earned him a place in history; he is credited with sparking the Bahamian antislavery movement. For the Rolles, who in the custom of the day took the name of their owner, Pompey is an icon of resistance: He didn't take servitude passively; he stood up and fought. A document from the time tells how soldiers were constantly being called out to quell the Rolle plantation workers. "They were always troublesome," says Gail Saunders, a historian and former director of the Bahamas ' national archives. "They wanted their freedom."

"Maybe that's how we get some of the strong players in the U.S. today," Kermit says. "My father always said of someone who's big and strong and healthy and runs fast: 'That could be one of Pompey's.'" Kermit, a restaurateur and businessman, is one of Rolleville's most prominent figures, a living repository of history. His great-grandmother, the daughter of a slave, told him that Lord John's overseers whipped any slave they caught trying to read and that some slaves risked their skins to secretly teach each other the alphabet.

During that walk with his dad on Pompey's route, Kermit also learned about the source of the Rolles' distinctive pride: Lord John's benevolent deed. Legend has it that, instead of selling off his land after the British fully ended slavery in the Bahamas in 1838, John Rolle willed the 5,000 acres in perpetuity to his freed slaves. Not one clod of that prime Caribbean waterfront land could be bought or sold. It could only be handed down to other Rolles.

This alone, Kermit says, makes Rolles different from other Bahamian blacks, not to mention their counterparts in the U.S. Kermit worked for 14 years in the postwar U.S. , shuttling in and out of the Bahamas on the Contract, and never understood the acceptance of second-class citizenship by many African-Americans. "John, Lord Rolle, was a perfect man," Kermit says. "That's why we ask God to bless him: His mind was so clear that after emancipation, all the lands he had he willed back to his people. That made us the most happiest people, because he treated us as human beings. He set you up in such a way that you can be proud, and there's still that proudness. The other slave owners? They just turned those people loose. [The freed slaves] didn't know where to go. They don't know where they are. But my father showed me the boundaries—and within those boundaries, the land belonged to our people."

A vast simplification? Perhaps. But Kermit is right about the psychological heft a prize such as Lord Rolle's can provide. In a recent essay, Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. cited lack of property as a key reason for the growing wealth gap between poor and middle-class African-Americans. Studying 20 successful African-Americans, Gates found that 15 are descended from families that obtained property before 1920. By then, the Rolles on Exuma had been in possession of their land for more than 80 years. "People who own property feel a sense of ownership in their future and their society," Gates wrote. "They study, save, work, strive and vote. And people trapped in a culture of tenancy do not."

In the Rolles' case, the slave owner's gesture imbued its recipients with a sense of grace. "I heard that story about Lord John Rolle," says Florida State 's Myron Rolle, who was born and raised in the U.S. "Something like that just makes life more fulfilling. It makes you feel more connected with who you are, knowing where you came from and the people who came before you."

Amen Kermit.

Follow this link to read the rest of this article.

25 June 2010

A US builder builds and renovates homes in The Bahamas

The Out Islands of The Bahamas have left an indelible mark on the very core of my being. I've written about there here pretty extensively, too many times to link to individually so here's a link to all of those Bahamian posts. As I gear up for what will be either my ninth or tenth visit to my Out Island, Cat Island, all of my thoughts are now directed to my east.

I'm not the only one who's been deeply affected by those far flung islands, not by a long shot. There's something to their untrammeled beaches and all but forgotten shores that really sings to a special breed of person. Out Island fans tend to find one another and when I started Tweeting about my Bahamian experiences last fall it was no real surprise that I fell in with a whole cabal of Out Island folks. One such Out Island person is a Vermont-based builder and renovator who has a case of the hots for the Out Islands that puts mine to shame.

Todd Vendituoli and his family not only love the island of Eleuthera, Todd's become a builder and renovator there.

Eleuthera is a 100-mile-long ribbon of sand and rock that starts around 50 miles east of Nassau and extends to the south until it ends around 20 miles tot he northwest of my beloved Cat Island. By 1550, the population of native Taino people had been enslaved and deported to Hispaniola by the Spanish. The island lay empty until it was settled by British Puritans in 1648. Eleuthera gets its name from the Greek word for free and its current population stands at around 8,000 people.

Though Eleuthera's a bit more connected to the rest of the world than some of the more outlying islands, it's still pretty far from the beaten path. It was into this splendid isolation that Todd and his wife found themselves around ten years ago. Todd was already an established builder and renovator in New England and they ended up buying a home during that first visit to Eleuthera. Shortly after that first home, they bought and renovated a historic home on Cupid's Cay. The photos that accompany this post are the before and after photos of their historic undertaking.

Todd just returned from Eleuthera this week and he took the time to answer some questions from me about his experiences as a builder who works in the Out Islands.

The house that Todd bought.

How long have you been building?

I’ve been a contractor since 1986 and have done remodeling, post and beam homes, and commercial rehabs. Right now I do energy efficient homes and remodeling in VT and ME. You can see more at .

The back of the house that Todd bought.

How did you get from building and renovating in Vermont to building and remodeling in Eleuthera?

My wife and I went to Eleuthera on a vacation and ended up buying a small cottage and about a month later a historic building came on the market. We went back down and decided it could be renovated, made an offer, which was accepted and so it began.  You can see more of this renovation at

This is the same house as the renovation is wrapping up. Quite a transformation!

What are the greatest challenges to working in the developing world?
There are many things that are different to work out in the Islands. Labor works on a different time frame and finding good labor can be a challenge. Materials have to be generally brought in so you have to deal with ordering, shipping by boat, Customs, deliveries and of course timing it all to be done efficiently. Also the system works differently than here and without knowing who to see it can be difficult to get things accomplished. It’s not a what you know place but who you know and understanding the procedures for getting things done has to be learned if you expect to proceed.

This is the back of the house after the renovation.

What are the greatest rewards?

I think the greatest reward is in actually getting the project accomplished and having a satisfied client as sometimes the simplest of things can turn into a project themselves. It is not the States and sometimes what would be deemed a simple task takes on a whole new dimension so when the job is completed there is a strong sense of relief and achievement.

This is the interior as he found it.

How do you get supplies?

Most of my supplies come from Florida. I have to go through the entire project, every nail, screw, windows/doors, siding, framing lumber and on and on. Then I do the order and try to set up a ship date or dates if the order is to be split shipped. This takes quite a bit of time as if you stop and start to look at every tiny piece that goes into making your home you’ll soon see there are thousands of items that need to be accounted for.

This is the same room after.

What happens if you miss something or you have a tool that breaks down?

If I have forgotten an item I try to buy it locally and you usually can find it but the cost is generally much more expensive. This possibility also has to be accounted for in pricing of a project there. You don’t just run to your local Home Depot and pick up what you forgot to order. If a tool breaks then you have to order a new one from Florida and I have about the same line of tools there as here. The difference is here I buy $400.00 for a nail gun and that’s it. There I buy a $400 nail gun in FL, ship it to the island and pay Customs and now I have a $650 nail gun. Custom fees vary on item to item but they range from 7% for raw lumber to 46% on other items to 80% for vehicles. A $10,000 used car in FL and brought to the Island is about a $19,000 by the time you get to drive it.

The first shipment of building supplies arrives from Florida.

In general, how much more expensive is it to build something in The Bahamas as opposed to building in Vermont?

Of course it depends on the materials desired by the client but everything is very expensive. As I mentioned above the duties imposed by Customs are high. Gas is generally around $5/gal. and food/electricity are also expensive. So as a general  rule it seems that with all the items needed to do a projected, transportation, fuels, materials shipping etc that need to be accounted for the projects costs are about 3 times the cost compared to here. As everywhere there are good reputable builders and bad dishonest ones.  The good builders are not cheap but they will get what is needed done and in a professional manner. The dishonest ones may never get your project done and end up costing you more than if you had just used the “expensive” contractor.

Another secluded Eleuthera beach

What's the licensing procedure over there and what kind of building codes or building code enforcement are there in the Out Islands?

In the Bahamas there are presently no licensing of tradespeople. Therefore if you have a tape measure and a saw you could pass yourself off as a contractor. Yes they do and yes foreigners fall for it. They do have very good building codes and there are numerous inspections throughout the project. However the inspections can sometimes be meaningless and there are numerous ways around the procedure. Remember it’s not what you know but who you know and what steps you’re willing to do to get things accomplished. Lunches, “gifts” and favors owed go a long way to speeding a project along.

This is the library in nearby Governor's Harbor.

How difficult is it to put in a full workday when you're surrounded by so much beauty? What is a typical work day like?

Actually when I’m doing a project I handle it the same there as here. I set goals that I want to see accomplished for the day, week etc and set out to obtain them. Sure I get to step back at various points in the day to see the beautiful water or fish but I try to stay focused on what needs to be accomplished. My job is to keep the project going at a satisfactory speed, make sure everything is being done as needed and a constant line of communication with the client so that they remain aware of progress and are happy.  My day usually starts around 5 am with planning what’s to be done etc and then to the job by 7 am or earlier depending on the temperature. During the day I have to make sure all work is being done as needed, checking on supplies and subcontractors and then in the evening I usually send pictures or a communication to the client or clients to keep them in the loop. Recently we did a project for a client in California and he and his wife only came once during the project and then at the completion and they were completely satisfied with their new home.

Governor's Harbor

What's next on Eleuthera? How big a role are you planning for The Bahamas to play in your future?

Right now The Bahamas are in the same position economically as most other places and construction has slowed on Eleuthera as well. There are still opportunities to be gained and we continue to look for various avenues to pursue. I am also a foreigner there and as such have to work within the politically landscape of that country, which can be trying at times but we continue to see ample growth for years to come given the beauty of the island and the wonderful people of Eleuthera.

Eleuthera's famous pink sand

Once again, Todd Vendituoli's primary website is here and his Eleuthera website is here. You can also find him on Twitter as @TALV58. Thanks Todd, I'll toast to you when I sit down in front of a steaming bowl of sheep's tongue souse in a few weeks.

27 August 2009

Bahamian bird Thursday

I need to look at something interesting today. This is Saurothera merlini bahamensis, the Lizard Cuckoo. At 54cm (more than 20 inches!), it's the largest member of the cuckoo family. The species Saurothera merlini is found only in Cuba (where there are three subspecies) and on three islands in The Bahamas. The bahamensis subspecies is the version of this bird found on Cat Island, Eleuthera and New Providence. It's an uncommon bird and I count myself among the lucky few who have watched this bird do its thing.

Most cuckoos hijack the nests of other birds. A female cuckoo finds a nest with eggs in it, gets rid of the eggs it finds and then lays her own in an amazing act of inter-species switcheroo and piracy. The host bird sees eggs in its nest when it returns and then proceeds as if nothing happened. It's a pretty amazing behavior. However, the Lizard Cuckoo is unique for a bunch of reasons, not the least of which is its abstention from this switcheroo behavior. S. merlini bahamensis actually builds its own nest and raises its own young. That might have something to do with the size of this bird. I'd imagine disguising a 15-inch long fledgling is a pretty hard sell.

These birds hunt for lizards (hence the common name) and large insects in the underbrush. They are surprisingly agile and can run along the ground when the need arises. Trust me when I tell you that they have a call that can wake the dead.

23 August 2009

A traveler's tale: high adventure with broken, rented Jeep

My friends JD, Scott and I flew to Cat Island, The Bahamas on the eighth of August. It was JD's and my eighth visit and Scott's first. We rented the same cottage on the beach where JD and I had stayed many times previously. We flew over in a single-engine four seater and were staying for a week. Three men and their gear in a small plane left no room to bring food from home and the plan was to go native for the week. We'd eat what Cat Islanders ate.

Cat Island is approximately 40 miles long and four miles wide at its widest. It's home to a thousand people who scratch out a living by whatever means they can. Grocery options are limited to say the least. There are four or five general stores dotted along the King's Highway and they sell whatever the weekly mail boat brings and whatever produce can be coaxed out of the rocky, thin soil. Fish and lobster are abundant, though they're alive and swimming free. This is easily remedied by handing a Bahamian kid a $20 bill.

A well placed $20 guarantees a ready supply of seafood and an equally ready supply of the stories of Cat Island.

I'd made arrangements a couple of weeks earlier to rent a jeep from a couple who run one of the general stores, Simon and his wife Neda. "Jeep" is a generic term on Cat for anything with four-wheel drive. The jeep in question was a Mitsubishi Bighorn, that's a Japanese SUV meant for non-US parts of the world. Bahamians drive on the left and my Bighorn had a steering wheel on the right, all the better to better immerse me in opposite-handed driving. The Bighorn had a diesel engine and before I agreed to take it, I made Neda assure me that diesel fuel was available. She dismissed my concerns with a rapid-fire set of instructions on how to get to the only diesel pump on the island. She kept pointing south and I figured that since there's only one road on the island, all I had to do was drive south and I'd find it.

Having a car was a God send when it came to hunting and gathering. The three of us agreed that I'd cook for the week and frankly, I was looking forward to it. Making the rounds of the general stores was a great opportunity to test my kitchen mettle. It's amazing the meals that can be made from a bag of rice, some cans of peas, a handful of bird peppers and a cassava or two. Giant spiny lobsters and still flapping yellowtails don't hurt either.

Toward the end of the week, I knew that I needed to buy a tank of diesel and decided that Thursday afternoon was going to be my fuel run. Thursday afternoon arrived with little fanfare and I couldn't entice either JD or Scott to come with me. That was fine, I was looking forward to stopping along the way to kick around some of the 18th century ruins that dot the island.

(my photo from a previous grocery run)

I pulled onto the main road and headed south. I'd forgotten to take my camera and I was kicking myself for my oversight. Most of the photos that accompany this post are from Flickr and Picasa due to the same oversight.

Cat Island has very little development of any kind on it and the power lines that run alongside the King's Highway have only been there for the last ten years or so. There are two cellular towers now and Bahamas Telecom has finally united the people who live along the 40 miles of paved road. This is great for the islanders, but iPhones don't work. Needless to say, I was phoneless for my fuel run.

Cat Island has a severe beauty to it, the rocky scrubland that clings to the countryside stands in stark counterpoint to the nearly fluorescent blue water that laps against the shoreline. Life for Cat Islanders is hard and getting by with very little seems to be a primary way of life. Poverty there is very real. I've seen developing world poverty in other countries, but theirs seems to be of a different stripe. Unlike the poverty I've witnessed in other parts of the world, no one on Cat seems to lack basic necessities. The overriding air of frustration present in the slums of Cartagena or Kingston is utterly missing. The harsh landscape and isolation keeps Cat Islanders on the outs when it comes to the benefits of living in the developed world, but in exchange they get to keep and maintain a sense of family and community.

Bahamians look to Cat as the place where Bahamian culture is kept alive. Indigenous music, called Rake n' Scrape, reaches its zenith on Cat as does the Bahamian art of story telling. Cat Islanders are the descendants of slaves abandoned by English planters in the late 18th century and their African heritage is a large part of the Bahamian identity. Undergirding a lot of life on Cat is an under the radar belief system called Obeah. Unfortunately, no one's real willing to talk about Obeah with someone who looks like me. That's OK, I'm a patient man. I'll hear about it one of these days.

I drove about ten miles south, through the settlements of New Bight, Freetown, Moss Town, Old Bight and was headed toward Bain Town when I found the gas station. The gas station was a single pump in front of a corrugated tin garage and both were set adrift in a parking lot made by scraping back the scrub and letting the dust swirl. No one was around, or so it seemed.

I turned off the ignition and got out of the car. A teen aged boy came ambling across the lot and I called out to him, "You have diesel?" He walked up to me, pointed to his ear and shook his head no. Being a smart study, I figured out that he was deaf so I took out my wallet and pointed to the gas pump. He nodded then stopped and looked at me, questioning. I showed him a $20 bill and he started pumping. When he was finished he took my money, smiled, and ambled back across the lot.

I got back into the car and turned the ignition. Silence. I tried it again. Nothing. "Shit. Now what?" I thought to myself. There I was, ten miles from where I was staying. I had no phone and I was quite literally in the middle of no where. Before I had the chance to craft a plan, a boy of around ten rode up on a rusty bicycle.

"You goina burn up dat stahtah. Turn de key half way and let it sit. Den turn it da whole way." I laughed and looked at him, "You sure know your engines young man." I tried his suggestion and the engine very nearly turned over. His face lit up like a lantern, "Try it again man! I'm a mechanic!" I tried it again and the engine failed to turn over.

"Pop de hood," he told me. So I popped the hood. "Do it again," he shouted. I tried to crank the engine again to no avail. "It's ya battry." He ran across the lot and into the tin building. He came back a moment later and he was wheeling a huge battery charger. Following right behind him was his deaf older brother who was unraveling an orange power cord as he walked. In a matter of moments, they had the charger connected to the battery in the SUV. "We got it now," the ten-year-old boasted, "we got it now."

Just then, a woman of about 40 came barreling across the lot. "Jacob! What dis? Did you tell dis man you wuzzah mechanic?" My ten-year-old savior looked down at his feet. His mother continued, "Ya'd a boy, too young!" She then looked at me, "I'm da mechanic. We get chu goine again, we got it."

A more impossible-looking mechanic I can't imagine. I learned her name is Patsy and she was indeed the boys' mother and she was indeed a mechanic. Patsy was sporting two-inch acrylic nails and the most complicated, braided hairdo I've ever seen. She barked a couple of orders to her son Jacob and he ran into the garage. He returned with her toolbox almost instantly and she proceeded to troubleshoot the engine of my rented SUV. She worked with the speed and skill of a surgeon. Not one of those acrylic nails so much as got bent as her hands fluttered from one potential problem to the next.

She figured out that the oil hadn't been changed or added to in months, "maybe never!" and I told her that the car was Simon and Neda's. "Oh I know dis jeep," she assured me. "Dey don know how ta take care a dis jeep." She yelled to Jacob again, "Biy, get me m'phone." Jacob ran into the garage and came back with her phone. She called Neda.

Great gobs of Bahamian patois filled the air and hung there like taffy as she berated Neda for not maintaining her car and leaving me stranded. I couldn't follow their conversation by the words Patsy used so much as her inflections and her volume. Based on that alone I knew I never wanted to get on Patsy's bad side.

Patsy put a quart of oil in the crankcase, confirmed that my battery was charged and then waited until I had the car running before getting ready to send me on my way. "You take dis jeep back to Neda, she goine a get chu new 'un. Don stop 'til ya get dere." I stood there, thanking her profusely and started digging through my wallet for some money. She saw was I was doing and stopped me. "We cool man. Dat's how we do it here on da island. We look out fah eachaddah." She then turned on her heels and marched back across the lot. I signaled to Jacob to wait. When Patsy was back inside and out of sight, I handed a $20 to Jacob and got that electric smile again. "Tank yah suh!" he beamed and then took off on his rusty bike.

I pulled back onto the road and headed north to Neda and Simon's store. I passed one car as I was driving and when I'd gone about 3/4 of the way there I was feeling pretty great. I was cruising along at about 60 kilometers an hour and as I crested a hill the engine died. I coasted to a stop and maneuvered the jeep off to the side of the road. I knew I was a couple of miles from Neda's and I knew too that it was nearing the end of her day and I doubted she was going to keep her store open for me to get there. It was too far a distance to walk in a short period of time, so I popped the hood. I hoped that seeing a popped hood along the side of the highway would be a sign that I was in trouble. I leaned against the jeep and waited for someone to drive past.

About 15 minutes later a beat up Astro van with the word "Taxi" hand painted on the side pulled over. I walked over to to the van and the driver asked me if there were some kind of trouble. I explained that I was trying to get to Neda and Simon's to return their jeep. He told me to get in and we were on our way. There were two Bahamian woman in the back of the van, Miss Olive and Miss Olivia. My latest hero and driver was Mr. Curtis. Simon (whom I should be calling Mr. Simon) is Mr. Curtis' cousin. Miss Olive and Miss Olivia were (Miss) Neda's sisters. Complaining about Neda and Simon's ability to maintain their rental jeep wouldn't have gone over well, so we talked about Father Jerome instead.

Mr. Curtis dropped me off at Neda and Simon's store in very short order and I handed him another $20. I think this was the most expensive gas run I'd ever been on. Anyhow, Neda was standing behind the counter of her store looking ashamed. I explained that their rental jeep had died about three miles down the road and that I was ready for her to "get me new un." She slid a car key across the counter. "Dah tuba," she said. "Tuba" is Bahamian for Trooper. I thanked her and left. The tuba turned over as expected and I drove back to the cottage.

(my photo of the King's Highway in Smith Town, just north of where we stay)

I'd been gone for nearly three hours at that point and I was laughing to myself over what a great adventure that had been. I thought too about how differently I would have dealt with that situation had I been at home. I would have had a fit and a half and would have shunned whoever the rental agency was for life. But because I was a stranger in another country and the people I'd rented the car from needed the income their rental cars generated to keep food on the table, the situation was different entirely.

As it is, Patsy, the deaf boy, Jacob, Mr. Curtis, Miss Olive, Miss Olivia and even Mr. Simon and Miss Neda showed me more about their island and their culture than any tourist brochure ever could. Cat Island is a pocket want that's easy to pass by. In doing so though, it's easy to miss that it's a pocket of fundamental kindness and decency. In the absence of an American culture born of cynicism and reality TV, the people I met that day had managed to keep alive the best of themselves. I experienced real hospitality and it was nearly shocking in its contrast to my normal way of approaching the world. So I'm left with the thought of how does thoroughly American, constantly reachable, deeply cynical me can integrate some of what I saw that day into my life now that I'm home? We'll see.